.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Doctor recommended for optimal cerebral hygiene 

Patagonia time!

Thursday, September 23, 2004

It's September, the weather is cooling, and you know what to do for the season ahead. Buy your fall fleece, right? Wrong. Even if Patagonia had stores in Argentina, it is Spring in the southern hemisphere. And in Patagonia, the region of southern Argentina, it is time to welcome back the Magellanic penguin, Spheniscus magellanicus, to its desert shores of relatively remote Punto Tombo.

The Magellanic penguin stands about 27 inches (68 cm) and weighs about nine pounds (four kilo) and feeds on fish, krill and squid. Their habitat is the artic shores of Chile and Argentina over a wide range of territory into slightly warmer waters.

In September males arrive in Punto Tombo after a 1500 mile swim from fishing pools off the shores of southern Brazil. Absence from land has been six months for the penguins. Their first duty upon land is to reclaim their old burrows. Some of them are one-half mile inland. The small, protected underground shelter is comfortable for, ahem, parental duties.

Young, virgin penguins must either stake claim to abandoned burrows, win a squatter's battle or fend off a returning owner (unlikely). According to the video I watched, the option of making a burrow was not addressed. Apparently, like Patagonia the clothing chain, Home Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond and Pier 1 Imports may not be in Argentina either.

A couple of weeks later the females arrive. Amidst the din of welcome hoots and hollers, the female singles out her mate and hooks up again. Sprint PCS' Free and Clear Calling Plan, I imagine. Sometimes the monogamy lasts a lifetime, which can be about 15 years.

For the virgin male, he tries with each wave of arriving females. Rare is he lucky. But his serenade (think of a wolf pup howling at sunrise with a rooster caught in its throat) can attract a female.

After the ritual dance to establish one's commitment to each other and after the burrow passes the female's inspection, the penguin couple throw on the Barry White CDs and get busy for several days.

500,000 penguins (in Punto Tombo alone) making whoopee and the music business can't figure its way out of piracy?! Sheesh.

After the loving is over, the primary duty for the male is to prepare the nursery, a bed of leaves for incubation. The leaves are fetched from the hillsides. It is arduous and after the nest is complete, the male heads out with other males to fish for up to a month. They have little choice. The penguins have no strength and GNC is fresh out of Vitamin E. Besides, the boom box is out of batteries and the females are more into Sheryl Crow by this time. Female penguins are strong and independent.

While the males are out at sea, the female lays two eggs and hunkers down to defend against danger. Hairy armadilloes and kelp gulls will strike at any time. She will try to remain in the nest until her mate returns. Some females can make it, others cannot. Since penguins have the one hatching per year, losing the eggs is catastrophe. (Well, listening to the video, it is, but it may be a premature call. I'll do the math later.)

When the males return, they take up incubation duties, which will alternate every few days. The females take the time to get a drink and feed. Eggs hatch after 40 days. New mouths require increasingly frequent urgent fishing trips, which both parents share.

Penguins learn quickly but many starve in the first few months, some never even seeing the ocean. Parents lose a lot of their catch to the gulls, who have their own brood to raise. After about three months of watching their parents head off somewhere, the baby penguins decide to follow. They have never seen the ocean. They have little choice but to swim on the first day. Some big birds (petrols? I didn't catch the name) with their six-foot wingspans will stampede the babies on the shore and catch them or try catching them in shallow waters. Babies have better chances of survival in the water, but if they are caught, they seldom get a second chance of escape, which is not uncommon (the escape part not the part about getting caught twice).

When fall arrives in March, the penguins sex up (no, not whoopee! again) but head off to Brazil in male and female groups. For six months each group travels, fishes and sleeps in the Atlantic swell. For six months they await one another. And for six months each sex has time to share its bedroom stories.

"Oh, yeah, four times a night. And no Viagra," sayeth the males.
Sayeth the females, "He always cuddles and insists on foreplay."

Sure. I recall one scene in which one couple tumbled into their burrow already in action.

There is a sense of urgency upon the yearly gathering at the nookery. Ninety percent of the previous year's hatchlings fail to return, which by the math means that penguin couples are lucky to have two families in a lifetime. So, losing eggs to predators is tragedy but the odds for one of the hatched eggs even surviving more than year is slim.

Well, that has been your nature lesson. If you're in the northern hemisphere be sure to get out and get your fleece. And should you choose Patagonia, think of the Magellanic's black feathers. Remember dark absorbs heat. Important in the winter you should know. And if you're in the southern hemisphere think of the Magellanic's white feathers for a bathing suit and then head to the beach, enjoy the warm weather, and scan the shoreline for romance.


Magellanic penguin links
Description and characteristics
National Geographic
Patagonia travel


Last night instead of getting hooked on some bad new program for the new TV season, I decided to add Wednesdays to my Tuesdays of learning. I watched the video Patagonia's Tuxedo Junction from the PBS documentary series Hidden World. This may or may not continue. And this may or may not have been part one of what may or may not be my penguin series. No commitment, no promises. That goes to you politicians, too. That goes doubly for you, Candidate Zero. Don't think I didn't see you pimping FedEx/Kinkos. Back to the topic at hand, penguins are one of my favorite creatures, and I've not yet taken the time in my adult years to fully look at some of the varieties. It is time I do, but depending upon what I can find at the library I may opt to look at other creatures. Be warned the three pets I have had have been the Norwegian Elkhound, the Samoyed, and the Alaskan Malamute. What can I say, I like black and white creatures.